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'The Refugees' Author Says We Should All Know What It Is To Be An Outsider

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. His new short story collection explores the refugee experience — and draws from his own.
Bebe Jacobs
Grove Atlantic
Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. His new short story collection explores the refugee experience — and draws from his own.

When author Viet Thanh Nguyen was 4 years old, he and his family fled South Vietnam and came to the U.S. as refugees. That's about the same age his own son is now — and Nguyen wonders if his child will ever know the feeling of "otherness" that he knows so well.

"I think it's a very valuable experience," Nguyen tells NPR's Ari Shapiro. "I wish, not only my son, but everybody, had a sense of what it is like to be an outsider, to be an other. Because that's partly what gives rise to compassion and to empathy — the sense that you are not always at the center of the universe."

The refugee and immigrant experience is central to Nguyen's fiction, and he weaves pieces of his own story into his new short story collection The Refugees. Nguyen's novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016.

Interview Highlights

On how Americans didn't want to accept Vietnamese refugees either

Every new refugee to a society — whether it's to the U.S. or some other place — is subjected to fear. They are the new outsider population, the new other. People of all backgrounds have a short memory — so when it comes to the Vietnamese, Americans now tend to think of [them] as being a particularly successful minority or refugee population that's assimilated fairly well. They forget that 40, 50 years ago Americans ... did not want to accept these Vietnamese refugees who they saw as completely foreign.

Now there are new foreigners, Syrians and other people from the Middle East, people of Muslim backgrounds and the sense among many Americans is: Wow these people are completely different from us and they are not like the Vietnamese who are much more assimilable. And I think that's very, very doubtful.

I think the majority of these new foreigners, if given the opportunity, will ... be able to assimilate and deal with American culture. Right now we are subject to a kind of new xenophobia that prevents us from seeing that.

On the two lives that all immigrants live

There's that sense of duplicity — the sense that there's something happening within the community, the ethnic community within the family home — and there's a different life that's being lived outside among Americans. You have to wear a different face when you're interacting with the larger culture and you can be more of yourself at home, or in the local market, or in the local church, speaking your own language.

That was my sense growing up as a Vietnamese refugee in San Jose, that I could totally see that my parents were different at home versus how they had to speak and how they had to comport themselves when they were with Americans.

On his family's immigrant experience

People might like to think the war is done when a ceasefire is signed, but for most people who live through a war, it goes on for decades.

There's one short story in The Refugees that is based on my family's life and it's the only piece I've written up until that point that incorporated anything autobiographical. ... The story "War Years," about the child of refugee shopkeepers and what happens to that family — that is drawn very much from my life and the lives of my parents. It was a very difficult story to write because I think my parents lives are worthy of writing about. I don't think my life is worthy of writing about.

It is a dark story and that was pretty much what it was like to be a Vietnamese refugee in San Jose in the 1980s; that the politics of the war was not won, the war was not finished. People might like to think the war is done when a ceasefire is signed, but for most people who live through a war, it goes on for decades.

On how politics follows immigrants to their new countries

In the 1980s the struggle in the Vietnamese refugee community was still very much over the fact that people thought the war could still be fought again. People were suspicious of the possibility of Communist infiltrators and that meant that there was a lot of fear in this community; that your neighbor might be a Communist, that you better not be seen as a Communist. And on top of that, again, people were just trying to build their lives and yet they were still struggling under the shadow of trauma and the legacy of violence that they brought over with them.

On how his son's experience will differ from his own

I came over when I was four ... my journey, my initiation into memory, into consciousness happened in the refugee camp in the United States in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa. So I'm very much defined by this refugee experience, of this sense of loss — of losing a country, of being separated from my parents once I came to the United States, and living a life of that I felt to be a life of privation even though my parents provided so many material things.

I look at my son and he has pretty much everything he could possibly ask for and want for and I don't wish to deny him those kinds of things — but that means he will have a vastly different sense of security, of place, of identity than I had when I was his age.

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